Study Identifies Successful Binge-Eating Treatment

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Professor Ruth Striegel-Moore discovered that more than 63 percent of participants had stopped binge eating at the end of a self-guided 12 week program. (Photo by Bill Burkhart)

Binge eating can cause depression, lead to excessive weight gain and potentially cause long-term damage in binge eaters. But a new study shows that a simple, self-guided 12-week program can decrease binge eating for up to an entire year – while reducing costs of treatment.

Conducted by Ruth Striegel-Moore, the Walter A. Crowell University Professor of the Social Sciences, professor of psychology, and researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research and Rutgers University, the study was aimed at finding a way to effectively treat sufferers from this disorder that affects about 3 percent of people in the United States.

“People who binge eat, eat more than other people do during a short period of time and they lose control of their eating during these episodes,” Striegel-Moore, the study’s principal investigator, says. ” Binge eating is often accompanied by depression, shame, weight gain, and loss of self-esteem, and it costs the health care system millions of extra dollars. Our studies show that recurrent binge eating can be successfully treated with a brief, easily administered program. That’s great news for patients and their providers.”

An internationally-recognized expert on eating disorders, Striegel-Moore said that Kaiser’s involvement gave her the ability to gather comprehensive data that she would not have otherwise been able to access.

The study’s results showed more than 63 percent of participants had stopped binge eating at the end of a self-guided 12-week program. In contrast,  approximately 28 percent of non-participants ceased their binge eating behavior. However, what may have been most interesting, most of the participants in the 12-week program reported that they were still binge-free a year later.

“This unique study gave research training opportunities to numerous Wesleyan students who conducted all of the interview assessments for literally hundreds of participants,” Striegel-Moore, who said that hundreds of individuals had to be interviewed to ultimately find the 124 participants. “I do not think there is another liberal arts institution in the country where students have this kind of hands-on involvement in such clinical research.”

A second study by Striegel-Moore and her team, also published in the April issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that program participants saved money because they spent less on things like dietary supplements and weight loss programs.

This randomized controlled trial, conducted in 2004-2005, involved 123 members of the Kaiser Permanente health plan in Oregon and southwest Washington. More than 90 percent of them were women with an average age of 37. To be included in the study, participants had to have at least one binge eating episode a week during the previous three months with no gaps of two or more weeks between episodes, according to Kaiser Permanente.

Half of the participants were enrolled in the intervention and asked to read the book Overcoming Binge Eating by Dr. Christopher Fairburn, a professor of psychiatry and expert on eating disorders. The book details scientific information about binge eating and outlines a six-step self-help program using self-monitoring, self-control and problem-solving strategies. This includes recording food that is eaten during binging episodes as well as the feelings experienced during those episodes. The author suggests using alternative behavior to resist urges to binge and outlines skills to help with binge eating triggers.

Participants in the program attended eight therapy sessions over the course of 12 weeks during which counselors explained the rationale for cognitive behavioral therapy and helped participants apply the strategies in the book. The first session lasted one hour, and subsequent sessions were 20-25 minutes. The average cost of the intervention was $167 per patient.

All study participants were mailed fliers detailing the health plan’s offerings for healthy living and eating and encouraged to contact their primary care physician to learn about more services.

The researchers then compared these costs between the two groups and found that average total costs were $447 less in the intervention group. This included a $149 savings for the participant. Total costs for the intervention group were $3,670 per person per year, and costs for the control group were $4,098.